On the Vice of Storytelling: An Interview with Aaron Shulman

March 20, 2019   •   By Lauren Hamlin

WHEN I FIRST MET Aaron Shulman, we were both in our first year of an MFA program in Missoula, Montana, and he was pretty hot for Roberto Bolaño. Though I kept it to myself, the truth is that I’d never heard of the iconoclastic genius known for his politically charged narratives and poet protagonists. Now that I have, it’s no surprise to me that Aaron’s first book reads in many ways like a Bolaño novel — except for one important difference: this story is all true.

In his prologue to The Age of Disenchantments: The Epic Story of Spain’s Most Notorious Literary Family and the Long Shadow of the Spanish Civil War, Aaron has this to say about his subjects: “[T]he Paneros are just people, like you and me, no matter how poetic or odd. But it is as if they refuse to accept this banal fact, as though simply being one more family buffeted by history and chance, without the gilding of literary myth, would be unbearable.”

This description gets quickly to the heart of one of the most singular families of 20th-century Spain. The family was composed of three rivalrous, hyper-literary, psychologically tortured brothers, a doomed father (the unofficial poet laureate of the Franco dictatorship), and a mother who scandalized a generation in a famous documentary. For the Paneros, art and life were inseparable — and not in a clichéd, romantic way, but in a damning, self-inflicted, if occasionally redemptive way. Whatever life threw at them — fascism, imprisonment, madness, literary feuds — the Paneros handily shoehorned it into whatever artful narrative was already in progress. While what Shulman calls their “vice” for storytelling certainly made a mess of their lives, it also makes for a gripping read.

Apart from being wildly over-the-top characters, the Panero family also serves as a portal into 20th-century art and literature, their stories intersecting, often dramatically, with the lives of Federico García Lorca, Salvador Dalí, Pablo Picasso, Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda, T. S. Eliot, and, of course, Roberto Bolaño (among others). But the Paneros’ story is at its most resonant when engaging with the devastation of civil war, life under the dictatorship, and the eventual rebirth of democracy. Shulman’s narrative blends the personal and the political, and raises timely questions — about living and making art when fascism is a boot on your neck; about how our individual stories complicate and inform our collective history; and about the wisdom and cost of letting our families — and nations — define us.

The Age of Disenchantments has something important to show us about the urgency of history and our agency within it. Considering the malevolent forces gathering in our present moment, I can’t think of a better time for this story to finally be told.

My interview with Aaron Shulman was conducted through an exchange of emails over the course of a week.


LAUREN HAMLIN: The origin of The Age of Disenchantments was a documentary about the Paneros that you saw while living in Spain. What most struck you about that film, and made you want to go beyond it?

AARON SHULMAN: It was a gradual process, with a momentum that started gently, then built without me fully understanding where I was going. After seeing Jaime Chávarri’s El Desencanto (1976), the documentary about the Paneros, for the first time, I was intoxicated and just deeply fascinated. The family was obsessed with literature to a pathological degree, as if they believed they were made of poetry rather than flesh and blood. I wanted to know who the hell these people were, and how this strange documentary about them came to be made.

I ended up persuading The Believer to let me write about the El Desencanto, so I began scratching the Panero itch. I interviewed the director of the film, the biographer of one of the sons, and a few other people. I learned a lot about them, but it was still mostly through the lens of the film and its making. After finishing the essay, however, the Paneros stayed in my mind, even after moving to the United States, from Madrid to Los Angeles. I read more of their poetry, then their memoirs, then memoirs about them. I guess I just got seduced both by the things that made the Paneros so universal (the struggles of art, family, politics) and by their delirious singularity. They were just so odd, brilliant, hilarious, and tragic. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to go beyond the documentary. It just sort of happened on its own.

In your Believer essay, you said the Paneros were the “stuff of fiction.” Were you worried that the truth about the Paneros would be less interesting than the highly stylized, self-spun mythologies that made them so famous? What made you think there was more there to uncover?

I guess I never really thought about the risk of them not living up to their legends, since that was in part my premise from the outset: to go beyond the myths and discover the real people, to explore the process by which the self-made myths came into being. So, in a certain sense, any dissonances or discrepancies between myth and truth would be part of the substance of the story I wanted to tell.

That said, the more I learned about them, the clearer it became that, even without the aura of myth investing them with a literary mystique, they had pretty crazy lives that included: a near-execution, military service in the Spanish Civil War, surviving Franco’s siege of Madrid, prison time, suicide attempts, love, lots of sex, drugs, alcoholism, adultery, insanity, familial estrangement, life under a dictatorship, life during a transition to democracy, and fame. That’s kind of a writer’s dream when it comes to narrative raw material. My job was just to not screw it up. 

Although I did uncover lots of new things about the family, I wasn’t drawn to writing the Paneros’ story because of the desire to be a kind of biographical unearther, or not just that anyway, but because there was already such a sweeping, colorful, dramatic family story there waiting for me — one that was a perfect way into the sweeping, colorful, dramatic national story of Spain. And apart from a biography of one of the sons, and some scholarship with biographical elements about the father, somehow no one had ever written the full narrative of the family. 

As you depict them, the Paneros — especially the mother, Felicidad — were almost pathologically obsessed with narrative. Even in the middle of a literal war, they never seem to have a moment of honest self-reflection — half a second where they acknowledge the huge, gaping chasm between the reality of their actions/lives and the stories they tell themselves about their actions/lives. Do you think they were more self-aware than they let on and just didn’t commit it to paper?

It’s hard to say with certainty, but my sense with Felicidad is that she did have self-awareness about her romantic narrativizing of life, as if it were a novel she was living and thus demanded all the poetic tropes of literature. A doomed love in her life, for example, which she imagined into being thanks to her friendship with the gay poet Luis Cernuda, with whom Felicidad believed she’d had an amorous emotional affair. This incident from her life strikes me as both comical and very sad, as is the case with a lot of Panero incidents. She herself claimed that there were just as many characters from books who constituted her memories as there were real people. This makes me think that she was very aware of the potency of her fantasy world and how she let it merge with real life.

What she didn’t have, I think, was a sense of irony, or a self-deprecatory sense that approaching life in such a way is a bit ridiculous, never mind problematic. That said, it’s also understandable. Who doesn’t want life to be less crushingly banal and more novelistic? It’s just committing so fully to that view of one’s life that has consequences. As Felicidad found out when she married a poet, serving as a muse and seeing yourself converted into verse by your husband doesn’t mean you won’t have an unsatisfactory, unpoetic marriage. Literature makes life more livable; becoming literature, on the other hand, doesn’t really change anything except maybe your expectations about life.

As for the three sons, I think they were more cannily self-aware than Felicidad, and a bit less earnest, in that from a very young age they felt the weight of their father’s literary legacy, and felt the need to build on it. This made their compulsive narrativizing less private than Felicidad’s and more performative.

Juan Luis, the oldest son, spoke openly about the masks he wore on camera and the roles that he played. Leopoldo María, the middle son, became a legendary poet because he was both insane and also capable of turning his insanity into a kind of never-ending set-piece; it was as if he mixed real mental illness with a crafted performance of it, and the combination created a perfect literary myth. Michi, the youngest son, was openly critical of his family’s self-mythologizing; he claimed to hate the family business of writing and that’s why he didn’t ever fully commit to it, even though he was just as obsessed with literature as the rest of his family. He claimed to be sick of his pain-in-the-ass brothers and their literary obsessions. In very poor health during the last 10 years of his life, he said you couldn’t be literary when you were so enfeebled and in so much pain.

But this wasn’t true. Even in his final days, Michi bathed in his literary heritage and its mythic shading. In a video posted on YouTube taken during his final year, Michi walks around his father’s natal city of Astorga — where he eventually would die — as if alluding to his father’s legacy. During his wanderings, he scratches onto a wall the title of one of his father’s most famous poems: “La Estancia Vacía,” “The Empty Room.” Michi was in an empty room awaiting death, and performing this little moment on camera had a poignancy that he was quite aware of. His literary mythmaking was a consolation for life’s pain.

What was the most shocking thing you discovered in your research? 

Michi Panero, who was a legendary playboy but a frustrated writer, has a famous line in El Desencanto: “Everything that I know about the past, the future, and, above all, the present of the Panero family is that it’s the most sordid fucking thing I’ve ever seen in my life.” In the last 15 years of his life, Michi’s behavior produced the most sordid things I came across in my research. The depths of his alcoholism and misery were profound and led to some very dark and sad situations, which were shocking to hear about in interviews and read about in documents that were shared with me. I cut almost all of this out of the book, in part because it didn’t demand to be there, but also because it was just hard to keep reading.

The book kicks off by dropping us right into the violent beginnings of the Spanish Civil War. García Lorca is being frog-marched to his death by Nationalist goons and everything is unraveling. Through the story of the Panero patriarch, Leopoldo, who was imprisoned briefly, you shed some historical light on how exactly Spain fell to Franco in the first place. I found myself reading and feeling a little haunted. In the United States and Europe, a new brand of fascism is on the rise, scaring the pants off most everyone. What does a story about a family who survived a different permutation of fascism in the mid-20th century have to teach us about the events we are living through today?

It’s actually made me kind of sanguine about things at the moment — which might upset some people because it could sound like I’m saying that, from my privileged white male perspective, things aren’t really that bad. They are really bad, in so many ways. But spending several years studying the cataclysm of the Spanish Civil War and the Franco dictatorship made me feel like we still have a lot of things to feel lucky about. Far from breeding complacency, however, this should remind us to hold on to them even tighter.

Though we’re culturally waging a war on social media, Americans aren’t killing each other in the streets on an escalating basis, as happened both in the months leading up to the Spanish Civil War and after its outbreak, before the opposing territories took shape. And while we do have a reactionary strongman like Franco whose information diet involves fictions and who is skilled at using fascist movements to his advantage, Trump doesn’t have the same power that Franco did, and he has checks on him that Franco didn’t. Of course, just like everyone I know, I’m terrified of him gaining more power and having fewer checks, but Trump didn’t come to power in the wake of a national catastrophe that left hundreds of thousands dead, with the opposition either dead, in exile, in prison, or in hiding, as was the case in postwar Spain.

So, again, things are bad in the United States, but the opposition to Trump is in infinitely better shape than the opposition to Franco was. And we’ve seen ways in which this opposition has been very effective in DC and elsewhere. On the other hand, it’s frightening to see history repeat itself, with the resurgence of many of the characteristics of fascism that were present in Franco’s Spain. In a certain sense, we’re at an impasse similar to the one that produced World War II. The Axis believed it needed to save civilization from contamination and decline, while the Allies believed they had to save civilization from fascism. The Trumpists (and I’m using this word in the broadest sense to refer to the worldwide rise of authoritarianism, xenophobia, and ethno-nationalism) believe they’re saving civilization from decline and invasion, and their opponents think they’re saving civilization from Trumpism and all that it embodies.

What’s most exciting to you about the publication of your book?

Just for other people to discover the Paneros and hopefully flip for them like I did. Or maybe not like I did, since I took my fascination with them pretty damn far and no one else is going to do that. But I hope the story of the family will give readers valuable things to think about.


Lauren Hamlin is a writer and editor living in Portland, Maine.